The Austin Chronicle

Access Denied: Cap Metro Blocks Blind Contender

By Justin Ward, October 24, 2008, News

In the latest chapter of an ongoing feud over proposed changes to Capital Metro's services for the disabled, some members of the agency's Access Committee are crying foul over a decision by Cap Metro management to block an applicant seeking to fill a seat on the committee. The committee, which is composed mostly of transit users with disabilities, was created under the Americans With Disabilities Act as a mechanism to provide feedback and enforce compliance.

Last month, the committee interviewed and selected three people to fill open seats, and the list of names went to the board on Sept. 29 for approval. At the next Access Committee meeting on Oct. 1, members were surprised to learn that only two of the applicants were approved.

The third seat, which was supposed to go to Pat Bartel, was left open at the behest of Capital Metro President Fred Gilliam in order to find a "diverse" member. Capital Metro spokesman Adam Shaivitz wrote in an e-mail, "If a vast majority of committee members have the same type of disability, then the committee would not necessarily represent a broad range of views for the disabled community as a whole."

Committee member Malcolm Graham says the committee is plenty diverse as it is in terms of disability type: Three members are wheelchair users, one has a head injury, one is elderly and uses crutches, and four are visually impaired. However, Bartel, who is blind, would bring the total number of visually impaired members to just short of a majority, which presumably could influence one of the most controversial policy changes being debated – the proposed alterations to the subscription taxi-voucher program, which is relied on more heavily by the blind.

Graham also says the management's explanation conflicts with what he was told by Business and Community Development Director Dianne Mendoza: that Bartel was blocked because of a 1994 resolution requiring ethnic/racial diversity on the committee, despite the fact that no one matching that criteria had applied. Regardless of why Bartel wasn't appointed, some are upset at what they see as another attempt by Cap Metro staff to undermine the committee.

When Cap Metro announced some abrupt and sweeping changes to its services for the disabled in the spring, Access Committee members complained that they were largely excluded from the decision process. A lawsuit by the Texas Civil Rights Project put the brakes on the proposal, and the two parties headed into mediation under orders from U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel.

Under the terms of the mediation agreement, Cap Metro was supposed to refrain from making any changes to policies and procedures, pending the recommendations of a working group. However, some are claiming Cap Metro violated the agreement when it moved the Access Committee from Paratransit to the organizational umbrella of Business and Community Development, which oversees the Citizens Advisory Committee. But Shaivitz says the shift will not effect the structure of the committee.

Shaivitz says that Cap Metro has done everything by the book. According to the Texas Transportation Code, the Access Committee serves at the board's leisure and is selected from a list of names provided by the general manager. Graham says, "We agree that the Cap Metro board has the right to choose who will serve on the Access Com­mit­tee, but we insist that Pat be given an up or down vote."

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